U.S. digital infrastructure is crumbling

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(Bloomberg View) -- Last weekend I passed through the glittering main terminal of the Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar. It is highly efficient, utterly beautiful and ultramodern. I cannot think of a single U.S. airport that compares favorably to it in any dimension. China today is building high-speed rail networks, new modernized ports, and seemingly endless stretches of smooth highways at a prodigious rate. We used to think of a “missile gap” threatening the U.S. during the Cold War. Today we are increasingly facing an infrastructure gap -- and it is expanding daily.

And as we begin yet another tumultuous year of politics and policy in America, the White House, statehouses, and elected officials on both sides of the aisle are already putting infrastructure at the top of the political agenda. In the State of the Union message, President Donald Trump called on Congress to allocate at least $1.5 trillion for "the infrastructure investment we need."

Much of the conversation relates to people's most tangible perception of infrastructure: roads, rails and bridges. The media rightly give us increasingly frequent images of derailed train cars, collapsed trestles, cracked stanchions and crumbling bridges.

But in the 21st century, infrastructure is more than concrete and metal. Equally important is the digital infrastructure that underlies America’s economy and governments. In an era when goods, services and ideas are increasingly transported via the internet, the strands of fiber, routers, servers and seemingly endless lines of code that compose our digital highways and hubs are quickly becoming the backbone of U.S. infrastructure -- and it too is crumbling.

Perhaps nowhere is the U.S. greater need of information technology improvements than in government. Late last year, the American Technology Council released a report to the president on how to modernize the federal government’s digital systems. The council describes a current state of vulnerable networks, antiquated hardware and duplicative systems. It outlines some important best practices, but leaves much to be desired in the innovation category.

Washington is hardly alone. States and cities across the country are struggling to keep up with technology’s rapid pace of development. Bureaucratic resistance to change, compounded by tight budgets, poor governance and human capital flight to the private sector, has left governments’ IT backbones in a precarious state. Making matters worse, only a small percentage of policy makers and government officials grasp the basic fundamentals of technology. This chronic intellectual deficit has led to decades of tactical decision-making in the absence of coordinated, whole-of-government strategies.

The first priority should be reversing, or at least stanching, the technological brain drain and inverted demographic model across the public sector. Culture, not technology, is the greatest barrier to modernizing the public sector’s technology. Let’s face it, a stuffy cubicle in Trenton, New Jersey, can’t compete with an adjustable-height standing desk in Mountain View, California; what not long ago was considered the gold-standard benefits of government can't compete with Silicon Valley’s free lunches and extended parental leave.

The solution is to make government a more attractive place for skilled, younger technologists to work, even if it is just for several years. The public sector should be known as the place where technologists begin, not end, their careers. Different benefits and more competitive pay with incentives to reward cost savings is a good first step. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to have an inspiring tech figure leading the way.

It is not just in government where our digital infrastructure is crumbling. The U.S. electric grid is the backbone of any digital economic system and it is aging rapidly. But the problems in it extend beyond towers, generators and transmission circuits. Today, digital functions like industrial control systems and supervisory control and data acquisition systems, or Scada, make up the grid’s underlying infrastructure. These systems are not only old and struggling to integrate with modern and more efficient energy technologies like renewables; they are also under siege from sophisticated hackers seeking to manipulate their functionality.

These ongoing cyber assaults, combined with the potential of a huge electromagnetic pulse attack and the ever-present risk of natural disaster, amplify the importance of building a secure and resilient grid fit for today’s threat landscape and climate. The only path to an energy grid worthy of this century’s digital demands and risks is one that harnesses the full innovation and expertise of the private sector in close coordination with government. Moreover, greater standardization and the use of open source technologies are necessary to make the grid smarter, accommodate more "internet of things" applications, and stimulate greater participation from the technology sector.

Finally, our transportation systems are also in need of digital improvements, although it might not be as obvious yet. Today you may drive down an interstate highway and notice an electronic sign posting the estimated travel time to a landmark destination, such as a major tunnel or bridge. This sort of simple message, probably derived from data that drivers and passengers unwittingly spew from their smartphones, is likely transmitted via a fiber optic or wireless network.

In the not too distant future, though, this same network will be have to support much more complex and computing-intensive tasks, such as regulating the speed of self-driving vehicles, efficiently changing traffic signals, and even dispatching a drone to replace an LED bulb in a street light. These innovations will demand a utility-grade IT infrastructure underlying all of our traditional transportation systems that is secure, reliable and efficient. If we fail in supporting our highways and other transportation channels, all the smart sensors in the world become dummy devices.

If we are to begin closing the infrastructure gap, we will need interagency cooperation to provide an integrated set of requirements that reflect national digital needs; congressional committees to stitch together bipartisan cooperation that recognizes the need for a national digital strategy, despite the obvious domestic political attractions of local construction; and a White House that can demonstrate steady leadership and push lawmakers to pass appropriate legislation.

The digital gap, like that of the nation's overall infrastructure gap, is growing. The U.S. would be wise to merge physical and digital infrastructure improvement into a single policy. Likewise, it is important to recognize that money alone will not solve our most pressing challenges. It will take a unique combination of political will, patience, education and creativity to tackle these challenges, all of which are necessary if the U.S. is to compete globally in the latter half of the 21st century.

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